Jurassic Park III (2001) – Directed by Joe Johnston – Starring Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Taylor Nichols, Mark Harelik, and Laura Dern.
JURASSIC PARK III doesn’t pretend it’s anything more than it is – a quick rescue-and-escape romp through Dinosaur Island – and that clarity provides a streamlined and satisfying experience.
I saw JP3 in the theaters back in the day and as I exited the screening I remember thinking that they were gonna make a whole slew of JURASSIC movies because the production technology had clearly been perfected, and as long as kids loved dinosaurs, there was no reason to think a new dino movie every few years couldn’t rake in the money.
They’ve yet to make another JURASSIC movie, though it’s never been totally out of everyone’s mind. As early as 2002, Steven Spielberg was publicly talking about making JP4. Initially it was due to be released in 2005 with Joe Johnston returning to direct. Then it was a 2008 release without Johnston. A year later, Johnston was back in and talking about how JP4 would launch a new trilogy. A year after that, Johnston said he wanted to do JP4 after he finished Captain America. The following year, 2011, had both Johnston and Spielberg talking up the film, with Spielberg going so far as to tell a San Diego Comic Con audience that JP4 was being prepped, and later Universal announced they wanted it ready for 2013. By October, dino technical adviser (and inspiration for Alan Grant) Jack Horner said the script had been written, but by the end of the month Spielberg was saying that it was currently being written. In January of 2012, Spielberg said he would produce instead of direct.
Coming up with a script for JURASSIC PARK 4 shouldn’t be that hard; if anything, Spielberg should take a cue from the Indiana Jones franchise, where it took them countless years to settle on a script that couldn’t have been radically different or better than the other options that had come up during the intervening years between Last Crusade and Crystal Skull.
The plot to JURASSIC PARK 3 is as simple as simple gets: Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Tea Leoni) trick Alan Grant (Sam Neill) into helping them rescue their son Eric (Trevor Morgan) from Isla Sorna (Site B – that is, the setting of LOST WORLD and not JURASSIC PARK). Grant and his research assistant Billy (Alessandro Nivola) think they’re going to serve as a tour guide for the Kirbys, but when they get there they find themselves in the midst of the some mercenaries. The Kirbys aren’t rich and they’re no longer married; their son was lost while parasailing with Amanda’s rich new boyfriend Ben (Mark Harelik) and neither the Costa Rican or United States governments will help them look for their kid.
The reunification of the family unit serves as the emotional arc of the film, and it’s solid enough. Johnston doesn’t push too hard on this angle, knowing that people are here to see the dinosaurs and all you need from the plot is something serviceable. Would it be nice if there was more going on? Probably, but JP3 (and I mean this in a nice way) isn’t trying to be anything more than a decent popcorn flick. Or, to borrow a phrase that pal Derrick Ferguson used to describe The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, it’s “a B-movie with an A-budget.” (I love that phrase.)
The plane puts down on Isla Sorna and before the mercs can even set up a perimeter, they’ve been attacked by a Spinosaurus (which is totally a real dinosaur, despite the Hasbro-ish name). They climb back in the plane, which ends up clipping the Spinosaurus and crashing. Before they’ve been on Isla Sorna for ten cinematic minutes, then, two of the mercs have been killed, leaving only Udesky (Michael Jeter) with the principles, and Udesky is more office nerd than skilled mercenary.
There’s three basic dinosaur confrontations in JP3: with the Spinosaurus, with some revamped Raptors, and with some Pteranodons.
The Spinosaurus is the main threat, even replacing the T-Rex on the film’s poster. There’s a pretty great showdown between the T-Rex and the Spinosaurus shortly after the plane crash that has the Spino breaking the T-Rex’s neck. What’s nice about the sequence is that Jack Horner has theorized that the T-Rex is actually a scavenger and not the menacing hunter of legend, and the group comes upon the T-Rex by accident, as it’s feasting on another dinosaur’s kill. Seeing them sends the T-Rex after them, however, which leads to the quick battle against the Spinosaurus, which results in the Spino being definitively cast as the new Big Bad on the island when it takes the T-Rex out.
It’s a great sequence, and one I appreciate even more after watching the bonus features where it’s explained that the battle is unique in that the Spino is totally a Stan Winston Studio puppet while the Spino is totally an ILM creation.
The Spinosaurus is a pretty darn cool looking dino, and it helps that it looks like something out of a pulp story with its alligator face, a huge, arced neural spine, and massive tail, because JP3 is so action-oriented. The Spino comes back over and over during the film, on both land and in the water, and it’s a nice way for the storytellers to make a real character out of the animal.
The Raptors are back again and they’ve undergone a visual revamp with the addition of a small band of thin feathers on the crown of their heads. The Raptors are also given loads of character development. Grant has expanded his theory about their intelligence and their vocal capabilities, and the film puts these new vocal qualities on display. Where the JURASSIC PARK Raptors were scary because they were vicious enough to rip you to shreds, and showed their intelligence because they hunted in packs and could open doors, the Raptors in JP3 are scary because of their intelligence and communication skills. They injure Udesky and place him out in the open, proving that they know how to set traps. Billy’s statement that, “they actually laid a trap” comes off as the dark side of Grant’s pronouncment in JURASSIC PARK that some of the herbivores “do move in packs.”
There’s a subplot involving Billy stealing a few Raptor eggs, causing the Raptors to follow them around in order to get the eggs back. At the end, it’s having the eggs on hand that partly saves the group, as Amanda gives them back and then Grant uses a replica of their resonating chamber to send them away. It’s a really nice sequence; just like the T-Rex was shown in LOST WORLD to have parenting instincts, the Raptors here are given the same addition to their characterization.
The third dinosaur with major screen time are the Pteranodons, giant winged dinosaurs that become a threat when the group wanders into the aviary. The Pteranodon sequence is the most frightening of the encounters, mixing the big bird’s ability to fly and walk. They also just look flat-out creepy with their massive wings and pointed beak. A Pteranodon captures Eric and tosses him to its younglings as food, and Eric has to fend off a mass of small, chomping, hungry babies. Good stuff. The sequence where the group is attacked by these animals is shot largely in the fog, and full credit to the production team for giving us such different kinds of battles: plane, forest, laboratory, rain, water, fog … JP3 never feels repetitive, and this Pteranodon battle starts up high on some shaky metal walkways, moves to the dino’s nest, involves a paragliding rescue, and ends up down in the river.
In the end, the group can save themselves from the various dinos but they need help getting off the island. Alan puts in an emergency call to Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who he’s still in love with, even though she’s moved on and married a guy who works for the State department. There was a really nice opening scene between them where Alan was visiting for dinner, and it was good to see the two of them together again, even under these circumstances. John Hammond and Ian Malcolm aren’t around this time, but there’s a nice bit where Alan asks Eric if he’s read Ian’s book as a way of measuring his own book (and thus himself) against the mathematician.
All told, JURASSIC PARK 3 doesn’t reach the legendary heights of the first film in the franchise, nor does it embrace the darkness of the sequel. Instead, it cleverly melds the two films; while Alan is, like Malcolm, a bit freaked to be back with the dinos, he recovers much quicker, allowing for a film that celebrates dinosaurs even as it shows how dangerous they can be. JP3 is a much more enjoyable film that LOST WORLD, with plenty of small humor sprinkled throughout all the running and fighting. It’s the kind of film that I appreciate more with each subsequent viewing, as the professionalism that went into every aspect of the film’s production becomes increasingly pronounced.
Without question, I’ll be waiting in line for the next chapter.
JURASSIC PARK Review Index